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What Angela Rayner’s new homelessness unit can learn from New Labour

Tackling homelessness is a difficult challenge – but there are ways to succeed.

People living in tents by St Pauls Church in Covent Garden
In 2023, almost 4,000 people slept rough on a single night – a 120% increase on the levels in 2010.

If a future Labour government is to make headway in tackling homelessness then, says Emma Norris, it should study the success of the last Labour government in tackling this complicated policy problem

Labour is reported to be planning to create an ‘ending homelessness unit’ in a newly created Office for the Deputy Prime Minister if it wins next month’s general election.  

With the numbers of people sleeping rough soaring over the last decade, this focus – which would place tackling the issue at the centre of government – is welcome. In 2023, almost 4,000 people slept rough on a single night – a 120% increase on the levels in 2010 – while over 140,000 children were in emergency housing between June and September 2023, up 10% on the previous year.

The statistics are all the more shocking given that the UK was close to eradicating rough sleeping two decades ago, with the last Labour government cutting rough sleeping by two-thirds by 2001 – beating its own target by a year. Unlike many chronic policy problems that have confounded generations of politicians, this was one that government seemed to have cracked. So how can it do so again?

The situation today is not exactly the same as in the 1990s. Local authorities face a different set of statutory requirements, the mix of policy solutions is likely to be different and the international evidence has improved. But many lessons from the success Labour had twenty years ago should inform any new approach.

Strong cross-government coordination  

In the 1999-2002 period, departments launched a wide range of initiatives to tackle homelessness: extra hostel beds; new alcohol, drug and mental health specialists; new outreach services; targeted programmes for those leaving care, prison and the armed forces. Policies on housing, health, welfare, police and crime all pulled in the same direction. This coordination was enabled in part by the powerful Rough Sleepers Unit, a group of experts assembled from Whitehall and the homelessness sector and led by Louise Casey, who became the government homelessness tsar from her role as Deputy Director of the charity Shelter. The unit’s unusual blend of outsider expertise alongside Whitehall know-how – and its direct line to the prime minister – meant it was able to drive action across Whitehall and catalyse new ways of working. The proposed new unit should follow a similar model.

Committed political leadership

Unlike many special units, the Rough Sleepers Unit was not based in the centre of government. It sat in the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions – the department led by deputy prime minister John Prescott. The new unit proposed last night would similarly sit within an Office for the Deputy Prime Minister under Angela Rayner’s leadership, but while Rayner’s involvement will ensure it has a powerful political advocate to give energy to the agenda, the clear and visible backing of the prime minister will be needed alongside this.  

Indeed, Tony Blair’s backing was key to the success of the Rough Sleepers Unit. It sat within DETR but reported directly to both the prime minister and Prescott. Blair provided leadership, created impetus and focused minds across government, ensuring rough sleeping was being factored into policy discussions across Whitehall.

Setting an ambitious target

In 1999 the government set an ambitious target – cutting rough sleeping by two-thirds in three years – to help drive action. It achieved this target a year early. While targets aren’t always the right way to achieve policy aims, in this case it gave the people working on rough sleeping a sense of personal responsibility, brought departments together around a common goal and set an incentive to achieve results quickly. This was motivating: many of the civil servants who worked in this area chose to stay with it for years – creating a deeper sense of accountability that contrasts with the current story of excessive turnover.  

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Focusing on prevention  

Right now, councils are spending considerably more on acute homelessness services than preventing homelessness. Spending on some preventative services on homelessness has fallen by 76.3% since 2010, whilst spending on acute services – incurred either immediately before or at the point when someone becomes homeless – now accounts for over 60% of local authorities’ housing budgets.

But the New Labour government first focused on understanding and tackling the causes of rough sleeping. Previous approaches viewed rough sleeping as primarily a housing issue, but the new unit explicitly focused on the wider drivers of rough sleeping. Interventions focused on ‘preventing the rough sleepers of tomorrow’ alongside the acute problem – this included working with the armed forces and prisons, funding family mediation services, addiction counsellors and running outreach programmes to engage with vulnerable young people. A return to prevention will be needed again.  

Partnership beyond government

New Labour’s approach was also built on partnerships and an understanding of the need to work beyond government. Following the approach taken in the 1990s, the government continued to work closely with the voluntary sector to understand the scale and distribution of the rough sleeper challenge, brought voluntary sector experts into government to spearhead their approach, increased funding to homelessness charities and local authorities and helped support stronger relationships between local services and voluntary agencies to work together to tackle rough sleeping.  

Labour’s ‘missions’ agenda already puts partnership and working beyond government at the centre of its approach to social change – this should inform the approach to tackling homelessness too.      

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